Jon Snow is dead but that’s hardly the point anymore. The most righteous boner killer in Westeros history unveiled itself in the final moments of Game of Thrones’ Season 6 premiere, when the titular “Red Woman” Melisandre revealed her true form in the best way possible. Turns out the lovely priestess whose physical perfection has bewitched so many powerful men is ancient, saggy, wrinkled—and far more formidable than anyone knows.
Hopeless and defeated after the deaths of Stannis and Jon Snow (both of whom her prophetic flames told her were destined for much more), Melisandre sits alone in a bedroom at Castle Black, then stands and moves to disrobe. Of course, the sight of Melisandre’s nude body is almost laughably routine by this point.
Among all the show’s female characters, hers is most frequently ogled, both by the men around her and by the audience—which is exactly what makes every fold, wrinkle, gray hair, and sagging breast on Melisandre’s newly revealed body so subversive. Here she is, your object of lust, the camera seems to say, facing squarely what skittish viewers might recoil from.
It drinks in the sight of the old woman’s naked body and pans back to behold it from top to bottom. It flies in the face of the show’s established male gaze, a brilliantly self-aware twist from director Jeremy Podeswa and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote this episode. New cast member Ian McShane may think he’s got this show figured out—“It’s just tits and dragons,” he says—but Game of Thrones just proved yet again that it can be so much more.
But what happens the minute Melisandre removes that ruby necklace packs more than just meta-commentary on the show’s favorite vices. It also means Melisandre’s magic, long since assumed to be mostly smoke and mirrors, may actually be real—and more powerful than we anticipated. (Perhaps powerful enough to revive a certain fallen Lord Commander?) And while we don’t know exactly how old she is, hints about the Red Woman’s real age date back to at least 2012.
Not long after she was cast in Game of Thrones’ second season, Carice Van Houten told Access Hollywood of her character, “I don’t know how old she is, but she’s way over 100 years, so she is a wiser spirit, in a way, but it’s difficult for me to say too much because A—we want it to at least stay sort of a mystery and B—I didn’t read the books.”
“Way over 100 years” may translate to about “400 years old,” as Maester Cressen actor Oliver Ford Davies said in a 2013 video interview. That jibes with what David Benioff said in an HBO post-episode interview after Sunday’s premiere when he called her “several centuries old.”
Why is this significant? Because if Melisandre is indeed 400 years old, that makes her the oldest (known) person in Westeros—old enough to remember events like the Doom of Valyria, the cataclysmic event that laid waste to the ancient city from which Valyrians once ruled Essos. (Melisandre is originally from Asshai, an Essos city where she says she was born a slave.) Consequences of the Doom of Valyria still play out across modern-day Westeros: The event indirectly led to the Targaryens’ taking of the Iron Throne, and the secrets to forging Valyrian steel (one of the only known properties that can kill White Walkers) were lost with the city as well.
But apart from her potential for unlocking Westerosi history, Melisandre’s revelation is also remarkable in that it comes at the end of a decidedly female-driven episode, in which five of the show’s leading ladies—Cersei, Margaery, Daenerys, Arya, and Sansa—are all at the lowest point they’ve ever been.
Margaery is still in prison. Cersei is humiliated and heartbroken. Arya is now a blind beggar (and being visited for daily beatings by the bitchiest of her fellow interns from the House of Black and White). And Daenerys’s spunk in the face of a new Dothraki Khal’s crudeness just booked her a one-way ticket to a widows’ convent.
And then there’s Sansa. The eldest Stark daughter’s rape, beatings, and torment at the hands of sadistic Ramsay and his (now dead) lover Myranda last season still mostly seem in service of Theon’s storyline, emboldening him to emerge from his fugue Reek state and rescue the lady in distress. (He even kills a Bolton banner man in this episode—quite a lot of progress for him!) Sansa mostly balks and cowers and clings to Theon—until Brienne of Tarth shows up.
Blessed Brienne, fresh from killing Stannis and securing vengeance for her beloved Renly Baratheon, rides in with Pod at her side and is met with delightful shrieks from doomed Bolton men. (“It’s a bloody woman!”) The look in her eyes as she finally, finally swears her fealty to Sansa, as Sansa in turn swears “to ask no service of you that might bring you dishonor,” is just so touchingly Brienne: honorable, driven, and, for the first time in a long time, fulfilled.
Best of all, the moment gives Sansa an opportunity to remember her lineage and the respect she commands as a Lady of the North. Photos and trailer footage from later this season indicate this is the start of Sansa’s efforts to lean back into her identity and reclaim her home, likely with the help of an army. Just as Jon Snow’s fate at Castle Black now seemingly depends on Melisandre, and Slaver’s Bay now hinges on Daenerys’s return, the fate of the North and Winterfell now depends on Sansa, the eldest living heir to Winterfell.
Likewise, south of Westeros, control over Dorne is now in female hands. Prince Doran and his son Trystane were brutally murdered (in a sharp and no doubt controversial divergence from the books) when Ellaria Sand and her Sand Snake daughters staged a vicious coup.
It’s hard not to sense that this abrupt end to Doran’s rule is the show’s way of re-calibrating after the meandering and much-maligned Dorne plot of last season. Still, “weak men will never rule Dorne again,” as Elia tells a dying Doran, is certainly an improvement over Season 5 dialogue gems like “you want a nice girl but you need the bad pussy.”
So much this season hinges on the actions of women: Will Daenerys return to Meereen and reclaim her place there once she convinces this Dothraki horde to follow her—or will she finally turn toward Westeros? Will Cersei find a way to rid King’s Landing of the Faith Militant, her own anti-Tyrell experiment gone awry? And will Sansa and Melisandre find strength within themselves to do what they must to wrest control of the North away from the Boltons? If they do, it had better be soon. Winter is coming—faster than ever before.